“It is better to light a candle than to curse darkness”, a motto that sums up the general approach to work of Ms. Nevena Petrušić, the Serbian Commissioner for the Protection of Equality. In an interview for the Autumn’s issue of Equinet Member in the Spotlight, Ms Petrušić underlines the main discrimination issues her organisation deals with, its key projects and achievements, and her personal motivation for working in the field of equality and anti-discrimination.
The Serbian Commission for the Protection of Equality was one of the most recent equality bodies to join Equinet, after its application for membership was ratified at the Annual General Meeting in 2010. The organization itself was founded a few months earlier in May, after the Commissioner was elected in the Serbian Parliament (its office being established by the Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination).
She heads an independent body with a five-year mandate and with the objective of preventing and lessening discrimination, protecting the equality of citizens and monitoring anti-discrimination legislation.
The organisation covers all grounds of discrimination and issues opinions and advice to the public administration and private sector (it does not issue any legally binding decisions). The Commissioner can file charges and misdemeanours to the courts, and can also initiate mediation processes.
In the following interview, conducted in September 2011, Ms. Nevena Petrušić, the Serbian Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, will underline the main discrimination issues her organisation deals with, its key projects and achievements, and her personal motivation for working in the field of equality and anti-discrimination.
1. Can you tell us a bit about the history and mandate of the Serbian Commissioner for the Protection of Equality?
2. What are the main discrimination issues that your equality body is currently dealing with?
The first Serbian Commissioner for the Protection of Equality (CPE) was elected in the parliament in May 2010 and became a member of EQUINET in November 2010. It is vested with powers to provide independent legal assistance to victims of discrimination, give opinions and recommendations on discriminations cases, file lawsuits against discriminators, initiate mediation between two sides, initiate drafting of the laws and bylaws pertaining to combating discrimination, and issue warnings to discriminators.
The main discrimination issues at the moment are discussions about the Pride parade (second in the row) that was scheduled to occur in Belgrade, as well as the discrimination of elderly people who are prevented from taking loans and withdrawing money as other citizens by some domestic banks.
We just started a project in order to develop a model of mediation in cases of discrimination. We plan to train about 40 mediators across Serbia who would mediate cases of discrimination brought to CPE.
We will soon start implementing an IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) project with the Directorate for Human and Minority Rights. This project should help develop our capacities in order to make CPE a more efficient antidiscrimination institution.
Finally, we have also submitted our Progress project to the European Commission that was aimed at European equality bodies. Its main target group is journalists reporting about discrimination, equality and vulnerable groups in Serbia.
I am proud of the fact that the office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality has been formed in a relatively short period of time. Our body consists of highly motivated, well-educated and dedicated people. All of them truly believe in the idea of equality and are ready to work hard and with devotion for the suppression of discrimination in Serbia. The basis of our work is zero tolerance for discrimination.
Also, I am proud that we successfully solved a few complex cases of discrimination. The number of individuals and people from the NGO sector who file complaints is rising each day, but I am pleased this is happening because it means public visibility is increasing and there are more who recognize discrimination and discriminatory conduct and are not willing to tolerate its existence.
Well, there were some really interesting and complex complaints that gave us an opportunity to work closer and improve our method and criteria in acting on complaints.
I would single out one case when the principle of equality was violated, which occurred when the City Assembly (municipality) of Jagodina adopted the Ordinance (Act) on financial help for married couples. This resolution declared that financial help will be given to each married couple as a one-time payment of 3000 EUR, but with the main condition that in a period of five years after marriage the couple must give birth to at least one child. If this condition is not fulfilled, the couple must return the financial aid (with the exception of the ones who could not conceive a child for medical reasons). These are the conditions for applying for financial aid: 1) it must be the first marriage for both of them; 2) at least one of the partners must be at least 38 years old; 3) one of the partners must have been born on the territory of the city of Jagodina and has lived there for the last 10 years; 4) prior to getting married, partners must not have children from former unmarried unions (or domestic partnership) and must not have been in an unmarried union.
Our job in this case was to analyse if the goal of this Ordinance was permitted and justified, and if the measures were proportionate to the goals. At the end we established that the goal of the Ordinance was to contribute to solving a birth-rate problem and stopping emigration from villages in the town of Jagodina. Even though these goals were legitimate, our analyses showed that some conditions were discriminatory. Without any objective and reasonable justification, financial help was denied to people who were in unmarried unions, who live but were not born in the city of Jagodina, who have children from previous relationships and who were in an unmarried union before getting married. Therefore, we sent an Opinion to the City Assembly of Jagodina with a recommendation to eliminate these discriminatory conditions from the act and gave them a term of 15 days to do so.
Organisation of legal seminars that deal with practical issues concerning the work and mandate of equality bodies. This gives us a chance to learn and to keep up-to-date with new ways of combating discrimination and promoting equality, and to apply this knowledge in our respective countries.
I have found personal inspiration in many authentic life stories of women who experienced discrimination. Many of those women I have met working as a volunteer for the SOS line for women victims of violence and also during my work with students at the Legal Clinic which was established in 2002 at the Faculty of Law.
I would not wish for my children, students, nor for all the children and young people who live in Serbia to live in that kind of society. Therefore, we are obliged to do everything in our power in order to create a tolerant society, that recognises differences and gives equal opportunities to everyone. For that kind of society it is worth fighting for…
It is better to light a candle than to curse darkness.
Thank you Ms. Petrusic for your contribution.